The Value of Technology: Devices, Software and Assistive Technologies for People with Specific Learning Difficulties (SLDs) by Sandy Russo

printed in March 2012 SPELD SA Newsletter


Students with SLDs can take advantage of the fact that technology has become a part of all of our lives. Television, videos, computers, internet, smart phones, e-books, digital recorders and calculators are cheaply and easily accessible for most students in some form at home, school or both. We are only limited by our imagination. There are programs and technology available that enable students with SLDs to compensate for underlying difficulties such as poor organisation, short-term memory problems, as well as reading, spelling, writing and mathematical difficulties. With assistive technology, they can produce work that reflects their innate intelligence.

Some examples;
• Televisions and videos allow print disabled students and visual learners to view and discuss the storyline of a book without finishing or reading the print version
• Computers allow students to create more and better quality work using programs that help students edit
• A photo taken with any device that has a camera, may be used instead of copying information from a whiteboard or blackboard
• An MP3 recorder on any device, can record our ideas and help overcome short term memory difficulties

Educational Software

Programs can help reinforce what students have been taught. The picture shows a screenshot of Wordshark 4. Wordshark 4 enables scaffolding for students as they learn to spell, this image is showing the program when it allows phonemes of words to be highlighted in the words list and in the linked games for the word list.

An abundance of software is available and buyers should be aware of the following:
• Programs will not cure a specific learning disability
• Programs allow a fun, repetitious and visual way to learn different skill sets
• Programs are best used to support skills that have already been explicitly taught
• Look for software that has verbal explanations as well as graphics to ensure visual and auditory teaching
• Ask if there is a trial version available, if there isn’t look to see if a reputable association or educator has rated and reviewed the product
• Alarm bells should ring, if a salesperson says they can’t tell you the price until they assess your children.
• You can check to see if a program or practice has been recommended in the MUSEC briefings.

• Many educational software programs are now available from companies that provide online syllabuses over the internet. They have content that is regularly upgraded and, with monthly and yearly options for payment, they allow the user to opt out when the student is no longer interested in using the product. Ensure you trial such programs to ensure their educational content before committing yourself.

Educational Software Most Useful for Students with Specific Learning Difficulties

Software to Support Phonics and Spelling
• These kinds of programs usually offer a range of games or activities to practise skills in reading high frequency words, phonics and spelling. They usually use selected lists or a structured program.

Software to Support Numeracy
• Numeracy software programs introduce numbers and mathematical concepts in a structured program, often using games and related activities to teach skills.

Software to Support Other Educational Needs
• These programs include practice in the following skills but not limited to; comprehension and reading, organisational and mind mapping, typing, word processors, and MP3 recording

Inspiration helps students organise information. A free option, X-mind can be found on the SPELD SA Blog.

The SPELD SA Shop has a small range of educational software that we know has been effective in helping students with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties.

Software can be viewed and trialled before purchase in software sampler sessions at SPELD SA on the last Friday of each month. See workshops page Term 1, Term 2, Term 3 or Term 4, for more details.

Assistive Technology
Many students with specific learning difficulties will also benefit from access to assistive technologies and equipment beyond those that already come in PCs and Macs. Without such programs, some students will not be able to participate at a level that does justice to their ability.

Technology does not cure a specific learning disability. However, with much practice and determination to master the product(s) available, a student can be taught to use technology independently, and with continued use, produce work that shows what they know and understand.

All students, even those with no learning disability, can benefit from using some of the assistive technologies available.

For example, how many times have you edited your work 4 or 5 times and still found errors? We tend to read what we know/think we have written. Text-to-speech has helped many people whether they have a learning difficulty or not, to identify grammatical, spelling or other errors that might have been overlooked during the editing process.

MS word talk - Text to speech in action. All students can benefit from text-to-speech technology when editing.

When should Assistive Technologies be introduced?
Simple technologies such as free Text-to-speech can be introduced to all students from as early as the junior primary years. Young children can start by typing spelling words and having the computer read the words. Later, they can listen to longer pieces of texts. This gives the students experience in listening to and comprehending an electronic voice. (Be aware, words such as read and read (pronounced red) will sound the same, as a computer does not understand context and is unable to distinguish pronunciations).

Typing lessons for 5 minutes at the start of each IT lesson from grade 2 will also be useful for all students, especially those with moderate or severe learning difficulties that may find word processing and perhaps word prediction programs necessary in future years.

Extended written tasks over 15 minutes can be completed using a word processor for students with writing disabilities.

Some students with specific learning difficulties may find it beneficial to have a software/educational consultation before purchasing expensive technologies. This prevents introducing a strategy or technology that may not meet the particular needs of the student; it is important that a student is not turned off technology due to mismatched products that were inappropriate or too difficult to use.

SPELD SA provides educational and software consultations on site or by telephone. Phone 8431- 1655 to make an appointment. Cost $65 member, Non-member $80.

Assistive technologies include but are not limited to;
Text to Speech (TTS) allows any electronic text that can be highlighted to be read aloud by a computer or any hand held device (including an e-reader that has TTS capabilities)
Voice Recognition allows a computer or enabled hand held device, to be trained in how you speak ,and once trained, to write down everything you dictate into any active textbox
Digital Recorders enable students to recall, plan, practice speeches, practice pronunciations, dictate information
Electronic Spellcheckers use phonetic patterns to suggest words for a poor speller when a computer is not available
Word Prediction use phonetic patterns to suggest words as each letter is typed
Visual search engines show a picture of a page rather than the metadata of a webpage

Combination- recording ideas and word prediction to help students write independently.

Free vs Commercial Assistive Technology
Free technology allows the individual to determine what suits them best. In the case of a whole school, it provides an opportunity for staff to examine different programs and technologies, before making an expensive purchase.

Commercial products mostly provide better quality features, extra features, Australian voices and the option of training pronunciations of mispronounced vocabulary.
You can download a free 30-day trial of most commercial assistive technologies by Googling the product.

Where to Get Assistive Technology
The SPELD SA Blog has a range of free assistive technologies and resources that people with specific learning difficulties, teachers, tutors, Student Support Officers, employers and parents may find useful at home, at school and in the workplace

The SPELD SA Shop has a range of professionally developed assistive technologies that have been found useful for students with specific learning difficulties.

All devices, software and assistive technologies will be more effectively used if training is factored into the cost of purchase.

Training often leads to a program being used rather than growing cobwebs.

Parents, student support officers, tutors, teachers and all those who support people with specific learning difficulties benefit from training that demonstrates best practice in how to use the programs and technology and how to make the most of these sophisticated programs.

For example, Microsoft Word has many features that can assist students with specific learning difficulties that are underutilised. A two hour workshop can ensure that staff, supporting staff and or students become aware of these features so that they can benefit by using the features in everyday writing activities.



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